Lawmakers Not Keen on 'Model' Public Health Law

State legislators have rejected a "model public health law" crafted by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities with help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Known officially as the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act , the proposed legislation was drafted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to focus on public health emergencies, including bioterrorism, at the state level.

But it seems researchers did not consult state lawmakers before circulating the proposal, or before press reports made it sound like all 50 states would enact the measure without question.

Policymakers from nearly a dozen states dissected provisions of the measure line-by-line Wednesday (12/5) during a meeting sponsored by the National Conference Of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Washington, D.C. and declared it "bad" legislation.

"I don't feel the urgency in my state" to enact such a law, says North Dakota Rep. Ken Svedjan. "It's all reactionary. ... Language (in the act) that has to do with government takeover and management of facilities is astounding. This comes at us in such a negative way, it's like a government takeover," he says.

Kansas Sen. Chris Steineger agrees. "It's way too strict to be a law anywhere, even in (liberal states like) Massachusetts. My concerns are there's too much delegation of power to local authorities, taking property without compensation, along with making people take vaccinations against their will," he says.

Lawmakers say the model measure will nevertheless be useful for states. "Making this a checklist, instead of a bill is saleable," Steineger says.

Hawaii Sen. David Matsuura has already put that concept to work in his state. "I knew if we tried to enact the whole thing (as written), we'd get blasted. We used it as a checklist and have already drafted two bills," he says.

One draft measure updates the state's quarantine law, which dates back to 1869. Another Matsuura-crafted bill addresses state agency collaboration in times of disease outbreaks and includes a "hold-harmless" provision for health care facilities, which means doctors and other health workers will get some legal immunity for providing care during a crisis.

Academics who have worked feverishly on the measure over the past few months say they're okay with the checklist idea. "We are expecting widespread debate and open discussion among the states," says Larry Gostin, model law project director and law professor at Georgetown University. "Some states will adopt most or all of the provisions in the model act, but others will use it as a checklist. We are here to be a support and realize the proper place for leadership is at the state and local level for this," Gostin says.